Sunday, May 21, 2017

John 4:1-26 True and False Worship

“But the hour is coming, and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is  Spirit  and those  who worship Him  must worship  in spirit  and  truth.” (John 4:23,24)

You will remember that Jesus spoke  these words  to a  Samaritan woman  at a well at Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.His disciples has gone to town to buy some food. He was tired and thirsty, and He asked the woman for some water since she had the equipment to draw water from the well. 

This episode starts an unusual and a remarkable conversation.  It was unusual in that Jews and Samaritans were not on speaking terms, due to longstanding historic hostilities. It is unusual because this woman is   a prostitute. She has slept with many men, and Jesus points out that the man that she is with at the moment is not her husband. But as Jesus asks   for water from this Samaritan woman   we find here an amazing conversation on the nature of true worship.

Now the Samaritans were descendants of Jews of the Northern kingdom of Israel, after 722  BC after the conquest of their territory by the Assyrians. They had subsequently interbred with the nations around them, and had also developed a mixed religion. They had built a separate worship place on Mt. Gerizim and they rejected all of the Old Testament except their version of the first five books of Moses. That religion therefore contained similarities   with the Jewish faith, but it had mixed in elements of idol worship and the embracing of a system of worship that was far from the true worship of God. This story then is about a woman who learned the meaning and practice of true worship   as she came to know the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a divine appointment. It was a life changing experience. It was a movement in which she moved from the death of the soul caused by false worship into the life giving knowledge of Spirit revealed truth as it is in Jesus.

So  then  the basic  fact here is  that  Jesus  is  talking to a woman who is lost  in a system  of false worship. To begin with, she did not know who Jesus was. He was, to her just another Jew, but there was already   something that drew her attention to the fact that He was different. He spoke to her, a Samaritan and a woman,  and thus her surprised response:  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” [v.9]. He asked her for some water, which came from an ancient well that Jacob, whom the Samaritans also owned as their ancestor and father, had dug.  

But Jesus was going to do more than just ask for water from the well of their common ancestor. He was going to make her a radical counter offer. He would offer her   living water. That thought fascinates her. Living water?  Water which shall never make you experience thirst again?  That sounds like a good idea. “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” [v.15].  But she does not really understand who Jesus is and what He is talking about. He needs to take her a little further.

“Go and call your husband…”. Here begins the process of helping her to see that He is more than just a tired and thirsty Jew looking for water.  She answers, “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus replies, “That’s right. But you’ve had five, and the man who you are with now is not your husband.” She was shocked!  How did He know this? There is only one possibility.   “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet”!   A prophet is a spokesman of God. The true prophets of God always challenged the nation to return to true worship. False prophets always led the nation into false worship.  So this discussion and Jesus unusual knowledge of her domestic circumstances leads to the heart of the matter for which Jesus had come to speak to her: the   nature of true and false worship. False worship leads away from God. True worship leads us to God.

She initiates the discussion. She says in v. 20: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”  Please note, that from this point onwards Jesus never goes back to the issue of her adulterous life. He had come to the topic that was really important.
At this point it is important to understand  that the whole world may be divided into two classes of people: true worshipers and false worshipers, and Jesus is now here to make the vital distinction between the two, and we shall learn that that vital distinction lies in Himself.

Verse 21   is the turning point:  “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”  Jesus says   that true worship is not confined to a location or place. At one time Jesus pointed out that those that were worshiping  in the temple of God in Jerusalem (Matthew 15:8)  were  indulging in false worship.  “This people honour me with their lips but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.”  True worship comes not from attending a holy place. True worship originates in the heart. So Jesus reminds the woman that true worship is not about her mountain of worship (Mt. Gerizim) or the Jewish mountain of worship (Mt Zion).  

How you worship is vastly more important than where you worship !

Verse 22 introduces the question of whom or what you worship. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”  Here Jesus begins to make the vital distinction between true worship and false worship. The Samaritans rejected all the Old Testament except for their version of the books of Moses. Their knowledge of God was deficient and so their worship was deficient.  
Incidentally, the Jewish system of worship, though they had the full revelation of God was also deficient (see Nicodemus in John 3) because they failed to see in their full Scriptures  the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Jesus had to point out  in John 5:39,40:  “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”  

True worship comes from the heart and it must be based on a true perception of God in Christ. V.23 brings the discussion to a climax: “But the hour is coming, and now is here , when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  

What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?  

For the answer to this we need to go back to  John 3 and the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus.  Here Jesus shows  Nicodemus that true spiritual worship, based on  true spiritual understanding   begins when you are born again  (John 3:1-8). It is the Holy Spirit that makes the crucial difference. He helps our spirits to truly worship, because He shows us who Jesus is.   It is the Holy Spirit who gives life to our spirits, and so when Jesus says that true worshipers worship in spirit, He means that true worship only comes from spirits that are made alive by the Holy Spirit
No amount of church attendance, singing, raising hands, hearing good preaching will make you a true worshiper. You must be born again by the work of the Holy Spirit. He must change your idolatrous heart into a heart that loves God your Father and Jesus as your Mediator and the Holy Spirit as   your Life Giver. That is what the Bile teaches. That is what you must believe and practice. Real worship comes from the spirit within and is based on true views of God.

Worship must have heart and worship must have head. Worship must engage your emotions and worship must engage your thoughtHead without heart produces dead orthodoxy.  Heart without head produces emotionalism that easily leads to spiritual deception.

True worship comes from people who know God and who love Him deeply! 

Let us investigate  the word  worship  a little  further, to help us  to see what true  worship  leads us to do.

The word “worship” comes from an ancient Anglo- Saxon word “weorthscipe“.   It literally means to attribute worth to someone – hence “worth – ship“.

The following words   are commonly translated as worship  in the English language:
(i)     The Hebrew word   “shachah” and the Greek word “proskuneo“, indicate a bowing down; a prostration before God.
(ii)   The Hebrew word “abodah”   and the Greek words   “leitourgia” and “latreia”, which indicate   the rendering of service to God.

Worship  is both,  a bowing down and a rendering of service to God. The act of worship has to do with yielding oneself up for the service of God.

Worship is therefore an attitude and an act. The worshiper knows who he/she is before God, and because of this they prostrate themselves before God. This attitude of the heart ultimately governs  your attitude  in  worship. This is what leads to a life that worships God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23, 24).

This is at the heart  of  our  Sunday worship. The seventh day in particular is designed to focus our attention on God, and having bowed before Him in worship, and rightly instructed in the Holy Scriptures  we disperse to serve Him   throughout the week as   we live consciously in the presence of God as we work, eat, play and sleep.  

APPLICATION: A right understanding of God leads to a life of worship!

Unfortunately  the meaning  of  biblical worship  has been  watered down by the contemporary emphasis  on  worship  as ‘ singing’. Much emphasis in Namibian church is on the worship leader and the worship group. A lot of money is spend in purchasing sound equipment , instrument , lights  and smoke machines so that the  worship service begins to look more like a  disco  or a  concert.   Music produces feelings  and many Namibian people confuse feelings with the Holy Spirit . Many of our Namibian churches sing so much that they are tired when it comes to careful listening   and obeying of the Bible. 

Biblical worship has been watered down as many of our churches do not place the correct preaching of the Bible, the Word of God at the center of their worship services. And sadly, even when the Bible is opened so often the Bible is not preached reverently and passionately and in the power of the Holy Spirit, because the preachers themselves are not worshipers.

The truth is that worship is more than Sunday attendance and singing.  It is the living out of the truth that we sing about on Sunday. Sunday worship moves beyond the sermon, the ordinances, the prayers and songs of adoration into a life of worship throughout the week. It is living out our lives in worship for the  rest of the week, as we obey God  in everything.

True worshipers become better husbands, wives, parents and children. 
True worshipers become better employers and employees. 
True worshipers are humbled by the Word of God. They are filled with the fruit of the Spirit. Under the Word of God they are transformed into  a people that love God and  who love  the church and who love people  and who love this lost world. 
They love to share the gospel with people like   the Samaritan woman  who is caught up in idol  worship. 
They are eager  to  introduce them to  Jesus who frees them by His Holy  Spirit from false worship.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

John 14:1 - 3 “WHAT IS HEAVEN LIKE?”

The doctrine of the ultimate state of man’s existence –i.e. eternal life  in a place called heaven or hell  generally receives little attention  among  the Christian people  of  our age. One heretical preacher’s bestselling book even claims that you can have your best life now. The so called Christian exponents of the health, wealth and prosperity movement are known to want to create their heaven on earth, except that death gets eventually in the way! Very recently I had conducted the funeral of a man who had left this movement and attended our church, and he really had trusted in the Lord Jesus. His wife and family had not joined him and they could simply not get to terms with his cancer and mortality and until the end they claimed his healing.    The point is that heaven, for many is not more desirable than this life. What about you? Are you content to live out your allotted years on this earth, and are you really looking forward to heaven? 

I have chosen this text from the gospel of John to remind you that  soon you and I will face  eternal reality, and if you are a Christian  I want  to  encourage you  to look  forward  to that day.

The Context :

·         Upper room discourses in  John 13-17- The night He was betrayed. Jesus was facing His own death
·       Last supper – the foot-washing, servant act of Jesus – The betrayal of Judas and Peter’s denial is foretold.
·      The mood  is  one of  pessimism.  Jesus’ intention is clearly announced   in 13:1“Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father…“. And in 13:33 He says, “Little children, yet  a little while  I am  with you… Where I am going, you cannot come.” Simon Peter asks Him, “Lord where are you going?“ (13:36),to which Jesus responds, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.”

So we see that the hearts of the disciples are troubled and discouraged. Their beloved Teacher and good friend  is saying that He is going to leave them. Jesus responds: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.(14:1). And He proceeds to give them two important assurances:  

(i)           Vv.2,3 He is telling them that He is going away to prepare a place for them. And He promises to come back to fetch the. By this He indicates that they will see him again. 
(ii)          Vv.16- 18. He would not leave them as orphans. He would  provide Another One like himself – and from that follows the  doctrine of the Holy Spirit  which we find in  Jn. 14:15ff and Jn. 16:5ff.

In giving them these two assurances Jesus caters for His disciples immediate security (sending the Holy Spirit) and future security (heaven)

But as we consider now  verses 1- 3, we are interested by what He means  by   His  “Father’s House “ where there are “many rooms” which  He is intending to “prepare”  for  them. 
The big thought  of this  message is that  heaven is a home for Christians! 

The Father’s House  here is  another word for heaven, the place to which Jesus had ascended, and from where He shall come again.  The term heaven is not used here, but it is  often used in the OT  (shamayim - pl. noun lit. the heights) and  in the NT (ouranos).  The terms  “shamayim” and “ouranos“  are used in  3 senses:

(i)           The atmospheric heaven. This is the sky, or the troposphere—the atmosphere that surrounds the earth. That is the first heaven.
(ii)          The planetary heaven, the second heaven,  the abode of the moon, stars, and the planets.
(iii)        The third heaven, the one Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12, is the heaven where God dwells with His holy angels and those saints who have died. The other two heavens will pass away (2 Peter 3:10); this heaven is eternal. It is this place that Jesus refers to here.

And so, when you ask, what is heaven like, we have here a remarkable description of what heaven is like.  Jesus calls it “the Father’s house”!  Heaven is compared to a home! And in this home we have  a Father and a brother and a very big family  in a setting of absolute sinlessness, perfect joy and  eternal peace. Regarding the aspect of joy, we may believe that there will be  continued satisfaction and happiness in heaven. Martin Luther once said, “If you’re  not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there“ . Heaven  will be a happy place.  Regarding our family in heaven  we shall have the unspeakable privilege not only to see and enjoy  the company of our heavenly Father, but also that of our elder brother, Jesus and we shall experience the continual ministry of the  Holy Spirit, but we shall also be in the company  of all the fathers and the mothers of the Old and New Testaments.
In  heaven no one shall ever complain that others have too much while  we have too little. In heaven there shall be no misunderstanding or arguments. There will be no hospitals and no cemeteries. And if there is work  to do, which is  something that God  has ordained and which is part of  His creative being  and our beings, there will  be no  policemen, soldiers and lawyers, for there will be no war and no crime.  There will be no doctors and nurses and hospitals, for there shall be no sickness. There will be no churches and no denominations and no pastors, for there shall be one flock and one shepherd - the Lord Jesus Christ. There will be no regrets in heaven, no tears, no second thoughts, and no  lost causes, Everything in heaven is purposeful and meaningful.
And since  language will exist in heaven, there will be many words missing from that dictionary. Words like  stealing, prison, adultery, murder, lying, coveting, idolatry- all those things  forbidden  in the 10 commandments, will not exist in heaven’s dictionary.
When Christians die they go home to their Father’s house. Have you ever thought of this? God’s eternal plan centers on family structures. God created society to be made up of families. Churches may be described best as families, the household of God [1 Tim 3:15]. Heaven is a family home.  When Jacob dreamed at Bethel [Gen. 28: 10ff], earth and heaven was connected with the angels ascending and descending on a stairway between the two. When Jacob awoke  he had the distinct impression  that he had been in God’s  direct presence. And what did he conclude from that?  He said, “how awesome is this place . This is none other than the house of God ; this is the gate of heaven… he called that place “Beth- el” which means “House of God”.
So it true to say that heaven is a  home. Therefore it is a distinct place.  And while it is true to say that  God is everywhere,  and that  He manifests His presence  everywhere, yet it is also true that there is also a special place in which He manifests  Himself  in a visible,  glorious  and uninterrupted manner.  Heaven is His throne room, His center of command, if you like.
The architecture of the earthly temple helps us to understand this. In the temple there were many rooms and spaces, but there was the holy of holies, that place where God’s presence on earth was supremely manifested. Well, this is the picture of heaven, but the real heaven of which the earthly holy of holies is but a shadow is far more profound than we are able comprehend right now. The operative principle  by which we live now is by  faith … we live in anticipation of that  eternal home.  We live in anticipation of entering into the holy of holies – the very presence of God – heaven!  It is ours already by inheritance through the Son who has justified us and cleansed us from all sin, and who ALONE enables us enter the Father’s presence!  But we are not there yet! But in a little while …
We are presently like Abraham of whom it is said, “that he was looking forward (by faith) to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” [Hebr.  11:10]. This is the same city as that which is described in Rev. 21 & 22. 
Heaven is our eternal home!  Right now we are not at home. We are strangers and aliens here. Do you feel it, dear Christian? It is true that  we have important  work to do here, and important relationships to pursue, and right now we need  to pay attention to  them. But do you find that your thoughts wander frequently  and longingly to your heart’s true home? 
The many “rooms” (KJV mansions)which are prepared for us by the Lord Jesus in heaven: The KJV translation “mansion” is  misleading in our modern context. You might be tempted to think that you might occupy your own Buckingham palace in heaven. But the word used here in the original does not indicate such. The Greek word used here is “mone[1]. It simply means “dwelling place”. But the significance of this dwelling place is that it shall be our eternal dwelling place.  Presently we actually live in temporary dwellings. Many of us have moved so often in life, and we  have had so many  dwelling places  here on earth, that we are certainly looking forward to our final dwelling place, where we shall never  ever have to pack and unpack a single  thing again!
What will heaven’s architecture and dwellings look like? We have very few descriptions, but one of them is found in Rev. 21:9 – 22:5 (read)
For a moment however we must take our eyes  off the physical  beauty of heaven and consider  the atmosphere  in which  we will live. We all know that we can live in a beautiful mansion, but in which we never feel at home. What makes a house a home? The atmosphere! And what is the atmosphere of heaven?  In 1738 Jonathan Edwards preached a series of messages to his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, on 1 Cor. 13. The last message he preached was taken from 1 Cor. 13: 8 – 10, and it was entitled, Heaven – a world of love. That text, you may remember, tells us that many things will pass away, but love never.  In that sermon Edwards preached his heart out! In essence he reminded his hearers that the atmosphere of heaven is “perfect love”. He begins with the Triune God whose supreme attribute is “love“. The Triune God lives in a love relationship. Thereafter he covers  the fact that  everything in heaven is  “lovely”  - “perfectly lovely “- uninterrupted , mutual expressions  of perfect love flowing from the Creator to His creation and between the creatures  to one another! Nothing imperfect will ever jar our relationships in heaven. And you who are deeply wounded and hurt because of your broken relationships here on earth - look forward to that wonderful atmosphere of heaven. Heaven is more than a place or a street address at which we shall live. Heaven is a “state of being“. It is a state of wellbeing! And it is connected to the state of our bodies.   The truth is that our present bodies are tabernacles, tents – temporary lodgings. In heaven we will be clothed with our “immortal bodies” [1 Cor. 15:53,54]  –  bodies that do not  get  sick, depressed, discouraged, confused, lonely  -   in our eternal city  [Hebr. 13:14] … our eternal house not built by human hands  [2 Cor. 5:1] .  And now lastly, remember that …
Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people
Jesus said: “I go  to prepare  a place for you”.  
Who are the “you?” 
Heaven is a place for sheep. There are no goats in heaven. Sheep are the people that Jesus died for [John 10].  There will be great multitudes of Jesus’ sheep,  from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and before the lamb [Rev.  7:9] in heaven.
Heaven is a real place. It doesn’t find a natural home in our heart. But it must, and it only happens  when  Jesus becomes  our  Saviour. He  is the way. He is the only way for you to heaven. Until you come to Jesus, heaven will have no attraction for you – but worse still - heaven will reject you. George Swinnock said: “Heaven must be in you, before  you can be in heaven.“
And the question for each one of us is this: “Shall I occupy a place in this house  with many dwelling places?
Someone once asked the Lord Jesus this question in Luke  13:23:  “Lord  are only a few people going to be saved?“  The Lord Jesus  does not give a direct answer to that question, but he turns the question upon the questioner and says to him:  “Make every effort (strive – agonize)  to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you , will try to enter and will not be able to.“   Jesus is the narrow door. Look to Him. Trust in Him. Follow Him. Only prepared people go to heaven. And prepared people by definition are those, who have become participators in Christ, whose blood covers their sin. Heaven is for prepared people. Are you among them?
Beloved people, my abiding interest for you and yours is  this : Not that you may be firstly healthy, wealthy and prosperous , but  that you may firstly be lovers of God and  therefore citizens of heaven. Nothing  shall give me greater pleasure  than knowing  that it is well with your soul. Amen



[1] The word “ monastery” comes from this root

Monday, April 10, 2017

Genesis 12:10-20 : Abram’s First Trials as a Man called of God

The story of Abraham in Genesis 12-25 is filled with many profound truths upon which our faith is built. Indeed, I want to say that this portion of Scripture is the "Gospel according to Abraham”. Think about that for a moment. What is the Gospel? It is the Word of God’s covenant love made personally known to an undeserving sinner. That is how the gospel of God came to Abraham. God, in His free, sovereign love chose to manifest Himself to Abraham, an undeserving pagan from Ur, telling Him that he would become the father of many people in the world. These, like Abraham, would be endowed with the gospel gift of faith to believe in the One Living and True God of the Universe. 

However, as we read the story of Abram’s faith and walk with God, we begin  to notice very soon that this loving call to belong to God does not come without some severe challenges. Behind us we have 11 chapters of Genesis. Beginning with Chapters 1 and 2 – the  good creation of the world,  follows the fall of man in Genesis 3. Here  we find the beginning of our many challenges.  Before the fall, man had only one challenge, “You may eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” [Gen. 2:17]  

A flood of problems follows after the fall. Life has become, as we would say, “complicated”. Life following the fall is filled with trials. Even believers are not spared from the effects of the fall and from trials. We shall learn that Abram and his offspring, men and women of faith are kept by grace alone and helped by Almighty God through their various trials.

So then, we have the story of Abraham before us. Last time we considered the call of Abram. At that time we had noted that Abram had not been looking for God! God was looking for Abram. Furthermore, Abram did not dream his own dreams for the future. He did not write his own job description. 
God’s mission became his mission: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land  that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…” [12:1,2]   

A great promise! But it will all happen in the context of many trials for Abram.  The first trial was the fact that Sarai his wife could not have children [11:30]. The next trial was that he would have to leave his country, his familiar surroundings and his family to go to a foreign and distant land.  Following this there would be the great rigors associated with trekking 1500 kilometres to the place of promise in Canaan. Canaan would be occupied by a hostile, evil people upon whom a Divine curse had been made in Genesis 9:25.  But there would still be more! God is testing the man whom He has called. He is testing him at the very core of his being, namely with regard to His promises made to Abraham:

(i)                 In terms the promise made with regard to his offspring, the obstacle is a barren wife.
(ii)          In terms of  the promised  land the obstacle is  that  he has hardly arrived when  he has  to leave  for Egypt, because  of the severe famine. In fact, we shall learn that he is never really able to settle down in the land of Canaan.  Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abram died without the promises of God being fulfilled to him with regard to the physical land of Canaan.
(iii)             In terms of the promise that he would be a blessing to the nations, he saw very little of it. He received the promise by faith, and with hindsight we know that God did honour his faith in generations to come.   

In every promise made to Abram, God tests him. We need to grasp the significance of this.  The God who calls us into His loving covenant tests our faith through many trials. Jesus said that we must enter the kingdom of God through many sufferings.  Our trials are not designed to make us fail, but to purify us and to show us that, in the end, we stand by grace alone and not by our own goodness and efforts. We learn that it is not our ability to successfully pass every trial  that makes us acceptable to God. Rather, we learn that the gracious  hand of God continues to lead us, enabling  us to persevere with Him  through the many  complexities of life, despite our many  our failures.  I have known this for many years, but oh, how little I still understand this!  

We learn that in the midst of Abram’s failings, God persevered with Abram, and we know that Abram did persevere to the end. We need to know this, because God tests and matures us in exactly the same way today, and that sets the stage for the incident that we see here.

Abram has to learn what we all need to learn with such great difficulty -  to trust God  and to put no confidence in the flesh. He and we  must learn   that  we cannot  have children of promise, we cannot possess this land, we cannot be a blessing to the world without the help of God. He has to learn to live by trusting in God alone.

V.10  A Famine  leads Abraham into  Temptation

"Now there was famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there for the famine was severe in the land."  Here comes a trial of faith. Did God bring   Abram here, only to let him and his people of the promise die of hunger?  Surely not!  There is something greater behind this, and the greater plan was this testing and strengthening Abram’s faith. Faith is both a  free gift of God and  at the same time  it is something that needs to be developed in each true believer. Very often we learn only through our mistakes and our failures.  The decision to go to Egypt was a mistake!  Remember that God had called him out of Ur and then out of Haran to start a new community, by taking possession of the land of cursed Canaan. He was to leave his country, his people and  his father’s household and  become the father of  a new way of living and thinking under the direction of YAHWEH.   
His promised land was Canaan and not Egypt. Now you may ask, “but what do you do when there is a famine in the land?” Is that not what Jacob did? Did he not settle in Egypt at the time of another famine in order to survive. Isn’t that  a responsible action (Gen. 47)?  
Well, maybe at face value, but it appears that God intended to show Abraham the nature of His faithfulness IN and THROUGH the drought in Canaan. I also remind you that Jacob’s going to Egypt did not prove to be an ultimate blessing to the nation.  We have to be very careful in being tempted to escape short term problems, for they often produce more problems than they solve. God is committed to His people in their hardships. He is committed to providing for them their daily bread, as He did when He led His people out of Egypt back to Canaan in the day of Moses. You will remember that daily miracles were the order of the day as God’s many people moved through waterless and barren deserts.  Would God not provide through the drought? Would He not hear prayer for daily bread? Would the rain not finally come and end the drought, as has happened here in Namibia at this time, in response to the pleas of many of our people? 

It seems that Abram did not trust God in this trial.  And in so doing he almost lost his wife and his life!  He did not gather Sarai and Lot and all the people with him saying, “Now we must pray for God’s daily provision until He finally sends the rains and end this terrible drought and famine?”  Instead, Abram looked to Egypt, the bread-basket of that region at this time. Egypt  remained  a great  temptation for the people of God at all times. 
Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 30:1-3 had to remind the people of his day: “Woe to the obstinate children, declares the LORD, ‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace”.

The tendency to want to solve our problems by taking shortcuts is ever with us.  We find ourselves often in the same predicament as did Abram. The Gospel of Jesus has found us in our pagan places. We have heard the call of Jesus to follow Him, and that is where faith is challenged. Jesus calls us to love Him more than we love this world. He calls us to live as citizens of heaven. He calls us to live in faithfulness, obedience, perseverance to him despite our trials. He intends to grow us through these. Is that not what James has in mind in Chapter 1:2-4?  
But we are so very tempted to take shortcuts in our life with Christ. We seek solutions that sound so very reasonable, but which if you think about it, encumber us and enslave us rather than truly help us. Abram is trying to find his own way out of a dilemma.  He is trusting the Lord, but a man has to live,  doesn’t he?  Can you see how quickly our faith  can be undone?
And so, Abram, went to Egypt, and  as he went away from the famine in Canaan, his worries started to increase in Egypt! 
That wasn’t supposed to happen, right?  
But, knowing something about the culture of the Egyptians (and the  heart of man in general)  and their fancy for pretty women, what would the Egyptians do with his beautiful wife? And so he starts planning and scheming to evade a new problem [vv.  11-13]. 
And, sure enough, it happens! [vv 14-16
His plan to survive is back-firing. 
His life is now in greater danger in Egypt than it was back in the famine of Canaan. Sarai, who he  deceitfully  presented as his sister,  is now in the hands of another  man. And in her place he received sheep, oxen, male and female donkeys, male and female servants and camels” (v.16). He has lost Sarai and gained animals.   But in reality he has lost the most important person in relation to the fulfilment of the covenant blessing. He literally had no future without Sarai.  Without her, the wife of his covenant,  there could be no future blessing.

How can this poor decision be reversed?

How can God make Abram  into a great nation now?  How is  the Messianic line  going to develop?  How  will Jesus, the Messiah, born of the line of David, in the ancestry of Abraham come? 

Answer:  God intervenes! If God did not constantly intervene in our lives, picking us up when we fall, bringing us back when we go  astray, patiently bearing with our unbelief, forgiving our sins and restoring our souls – then what helpless, hopeless men and women we would  be? 

BUT  THE LORD v.17   Thank God for the great  But's  of the Bible!  God, through painful plagues revealed to Pharaoh  that Sarai was in fact Abram’s wife, and what Pharaoh was doing here stood in the way of God’s great plan.  I remind you  that God did say to Abram,  as he was about  to leave the city  of Ur,  “I will bless those  who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse…”  (v.3). 
These were not empty words. God’s promise stood.  And so Pharaoh and Abram learned a very big lesson that  day. Pharaoh had  the wisdom not to strive with God , and we learn that Abram is no hero. He is a weak man, BUT he is a chosen  son of God , and that fact makes  the big difference.
And so,  the thing that needs to happen, happens. 

Chapter 13:1 reads, “So Abram went up from Egypt… into the Negeb “… back into Canaan, the land of promise,  where he belonged.  The incident has a happy ending, yes, but it is obtained by the humiliation of Abram and the discovery of the weakness of his unbelieving heart.

This part of Abram’s life  is not recorded to encourage you to  think  that you  may sin so  that grace may abound. It is written to remind us that we all have hearts like Abram, hearts that seek shortcuts, hearts which doubt the  goodness  and faithfulness of God. This  is written  to remind us that God loves  His people and that He extends grace to us,  despite  ourselves. 

God is determined  to save His people, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.  Our unbelief will not stop the advance of God’s kingdom. And it is all ultimately rooted in the depths of His covenant love  for us. 
And that love  was made known to us  supremely in Jesus  Christ  who laid down His life for ALL our sin!  Amen. 


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Acts 12 : “Herod versus God and God versus Herod“

Our story is that of a very unequal contest.  But Herod did not think so! This is the story of the human beings created in the image of God, but corrupted by the fall, who have gone in search of many schemes [Eccl. 7:29].  Our biggest self- deception is that we can be stronger or smarter than God. The ability of man to think that he can be the master of his destiny and that he can  think that he is invincible before his Creator is addressed in this text. The key players in our text are Herod, Peter, the church and God.  But the  contest at face value is essentially between Herod and the church of Jesus Christ, the bride of the Lamb of God. It is , I say , an unequal contest.

HEROD VERSUS  GOD:  ACTS 12:1-5a

The name ‘Herod’ will be familiar to a Bible reader. There are, however at least four Herod’s who need to be   distinguished.  Herod is a name used by several kings belonging to the Herodian Dynasty of the Roman province of Judaea.

(i) Herod the Great (born c. 74, ruled 37–4 B) [FOUNDER OF  THE DYNASTY]:   Builder of the second temple.  He was ruling in Jerusalem when the 3 wise men came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-17).  He was the killer of the baby boys, seeking to destroy the newly born “King of the Jews.”

(ii)  Herod Antipas (born 21 BC, ruled 4 BC–AD 39), tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea [SECOND GENERATION] :  He beheaded John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29) and he is the one before whom Jesus stood trial (Lk. 23:7-12).

(iii) Herod Agrippa I: (born c. 11 BC, ruled AD 41–44), king of Judaea.[THIRD GENERATION]  He is the Herod of our text, who killed James and who put Peter in prison. He is this Herod who was eaten by worms and died.

(iv) Herod Agrippa II: (born AD 27, ruled 48–c. 92), ruled Chalcis, then parts of Herod the Great's kingdom  [FOURTH GENERATION] :  This is the one before whom Paul will stand trial  in Acts 25:13-32.

The introductory words, About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (12:1)    provide a link  with  the preceding chapters.  The gospel is beginning to make its presence strongly felt, following the stoning of Stephen (Ch. 7), the powerful preaching of Philip in Samaria (Ch.8),the  conversion of Saul (Ch. 9) and  the  spreading of the gospel into gentile territories  (Ch. 10,11), the highlight being the wonderful work of God reported upon  in the Church at Antioch in Syria.

It was about  that  time that James, the brother of John (part of  the inner circle of Jesus) was  killed by Herod in Jerusalem [12:1] , and  when Peter was imprisoned  with the intention to have him killed after the Passover.   The reason why Herod did this, we are told, is that he saw that it pleased the Jews [12:3].  The growing influence of the church of Jesus Christ   began to  unnerve the leadership of the Jews, and they decided to turn this into a political  game, accusing Christians  of all sorts of things, and mainly claiming that they were opponents of the Roman government, by  maintaining that in Jesus   they had chosen another King to rule over them.   When Herod began to buy into their  game, by having James executed, Herod’s political popularity suddenly increased,   and Herod was very pleased about that. He was a politician after all.  

Peter’s fate was soon to follow, but there was one problem.  The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows Passover, had begun.  Being a religious holiday, this was not a good time to execute Peter. They would have to wait until the feast was over.   Remember, that Peter had been in prison before   [5:17-25], and had escaped. So, now extra cautionary measures were taken to insure that this would not happen again.  Four squads of soldiers guarded him! There were first and second guards, to make sure that he were kept securely [12:10]. In addition he was chained to two guards.  Humanly speaking Herod made sure that there would be no escape for Peter.

2. THE CHURCH AND HER  GOD  [ 12:5b-17]

In the meantime the church was not idle.  “Earnest prayer for him  was made to God  by the church”  [12:5,12]. God will have to do something extraordinary to get Peter out of this prison.  And He will, and He  does so by means of an angel !  The guards seem  to have no  awareness  concerning what is happening . In the midst of this  the angel gives Peter  instructions to get dressed , put on his sandals and wrap his cloak around him,  just like a man who gets out of bed in the morning, and he walks out of this heavily guarded prison, unhindered! In fact it all seemed unreal to Peter, until he came to himself  [12: 9-11]. It all seemed like a dream, like a vision (see also 10:9ff).   So, Peter left the prison unhindered, and when it all dawned on him, we are told “ … when Peter came to himself, he said, now I know that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from  the  hand of Herod.”  Only after he was out of prison  did Peter understand  that his experience was real.  And Peter knew himself to be in the hand of a sovereign Lord who had  orchestrated the  escape from beginning to end. He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It is not just Herod who has set himself in opposition to the church, and thus to our Lord; it is the Jewish leadership as well.

In the meantime, we  find  the church at prayer for Peter. This story   has a humorous side to it.Notice the ironic contrast between the ease  with which Peter seems to get  out of prison, and the difficulty of getting into the prayer meeting  at the  house of Mary ! He knocked on the door of the house, where the church was praying and Rhoda, a servant girl went to answer.  She immediately knew it was Peter, but left the door closed and locked and told the good news to those who had gathered for prayer, but could not convince them that their prayers had actually been answered!  They said to her, “You are out of your mind!”  [12:15].  This does make me wonder just what they were praying for, and what they were hoping  for  at this point in time?

Peter persisted in knocking until they let him in, at which time he explained how God had rescued him.  He then instructed them to inform James , i.e. James, the Lord’s brother who  was recognised as the leader of the Jerusalem church, [1]  and “the brothers”  (his fellow-apostles), and then he, too, went to another place, where no doubt they could not be found by Herod or the leaders of the Jews. 

GOD VERSUS HEROD:  ACTS 12:18-23

So then, imagine the consternation of the soldiers and Herod the next day [12:18].  What conclusion did they come to, since nobody at this time was thinking that it was actually  God that was actually fighting against them?  They thought that this was an “inside job.” Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as the empty tomb!  So, when  Herod could find no other explanation he had the guards all executed. This is very ironic! The guards who would have led Peter to trial, and then to his death, were now being led away to their death, while Peter was alive and free. You cannot fight against God.  Many people in history tried it, a and lost!  

And Herod left to go to Caesarea [12:19].  An deeply fascinating and awesome event follows now, all woven into the ordinary happenings of time and history. In   12:20-22 we read of the people of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of Phoenicia   with whom Herod had been angry. These people were dependent upon Herod for their food supply, and since the rift had occurred in their relationship they were eager to mend that  relationship with him. They had lobbied with Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, so that he persuaded Herod to give them a hearing.  Herod appeared before the people with royal  pomp and ceremony, at  which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon, desperate for reconciliation began to  flatter the king  with inappropriate language.  The people were shouting,  “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” [12:22]

How different is the situation later in Acts 14:8-18 where  we find a similar situation. Here   Paul and Barnabas  are proclaimed to be gods, but what a very different response  do we find from these servants of God!  Paul and Barnabas immediately calmed them down and explained that they were merely men and not God, and  drew their attention  to the true God who made the Heavens and the earth, whose spokesmen they were.   Herod, by contrast  revelled in the  praise given  to him. And so, he  who was trying  to  receive worship  and praise  from men, he who opposed God by opposing His church was now struck  by an angel of the Lord with an illness, so that he was eaten by worms and died.  And that was the end of Herod.   Dr  A. Rendle Short, professor of surgery at Bristol  University  wrote a book  entitled, ”The Bible and modern Medicine” .  He said , “  a great many people in Asia harbour  intestinal worms, which can form a tight ball and cause acute  intestinal obstruction.” This may have been the cause of Herod’s death.

SUMMARY : Acts 12:24-25

Our story began with  a very real threat  and some terrible consequences against the church of our Lord  Jesus  Christ. For a little  while we thought  that  Herod might  finish  off the church by killing her leadership. But God, not Herod had the final word. The final words of our text tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod could not stop the progress of the gospel. He could not destroy the progress of the church. In fact, the next few chapters of Acts will demonstrate an even greater spread of the gospel as the gospel  expands  into the Greek and  Roman world and beyond.

Last time I mentioned  the name of  Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed  for his faith. He   wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith,  “…We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
Jesus said  to  Peter, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"  [Matt 16:18]. Our text powerfully illustrates that God is sovereign over history – His story!  He is sovereign over His church. This is one of the great themes of Acts, and indeed of the Bible.  
Listen to these words written by John Stott: “The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free and the Word of God triumphing.” [2]

POSTSCRIPT : 

What about James?  Why was  James was executed while Peter was  allowed to live? After all, Peter, James, and John were all  a part of the “inner circle”  of Jesus. [3]  James died first. John died last. Each of these three had the same exposure to Jesus.Why would God “waste” His efforts on James by allowing his premature death? The  answer is that no one  dies prematurely!  James’  death at this  time was instrumental in the progress of the gospel, as we can see in the case of Stephen’s death. In the final analysis, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that He purposed this for His good pleasure. God is God, and thus He can do as He sees fit. The explanation may only be revealed to us in heaven.



[1]  Acts 15:13; 21:18 ; Gal. 1:19, 2:9,12
[2] John Stott : Acts , BST series , p. 213
[3] Matthew 17:1; 26:37: Mark 5:37